...neuroscientists should avoid conflating circuits that control behavior with mental states, especially in the absence of evidence that the two map onto one another. These equivalencies need to be very carefully investigated rather than presumed.
Considerable evidence suggests that circuits involving the amygdala control behavioral and physiological responses to threats. In animal research labs, threats are often recapitulated by pairing a tone with an aversive stimulus such as a weak shock to elicit ‘fear-related behaviors’ such as freezing upon hearing the tone again. The neural circuits that learn the association between the tone and shock and produce freezing behavior are among the best understood in the brain. The problem lies in labeling these circuits with the term ‘fear’, because it presumes that the threat elicits a mental state, a subjective experience, of fear that is caused by activity in the amygdala. However, mounting evidence suggests that the amygdala is not required for the mental state of fear. Instead, the mental state of fear crucially depends, at least in part, on cortical circuits that interpret or conceptualize what is occurring in the social and physical environment and in one’s body. In this framework, amygdala circuits control nonconscious defense behaviors (such as freezing) as opposed to conscious experience. Should this framework be correct, the extensive ongoing efforts devoted to targeting amygdala circuits and rodent behaviors such as freezing and avoidance are unlikely to provide a direct route to treatments for human fear and anxiety disorders. These lines of research can help, but not without recognizing the centrality of subjective experience.